Harvey O. Banks Pumping PlantI’m standing in the Harvey O. Banks Pumping Plant, part of the State Water Project (SWP), looking at a set of huge pumps that slurp water from the Delta and hoist it 244 feet to the mouth of the California Aqueduct. The sensation is a little akin to the how I felt when, not long after college, I rode a sailboat through the Panama Canal: a kind of jaw-dropping wonder (dismay?) at the scale of this engineering feat. When we humans set our minds to re-arranging the landscape, we don’t kid around.

In my last post I wrote about visiting a treatment plant to see where our water goes after we’ve washed the dishes. Now, on this tour of the Banks plant, I’m getting a glimpse “upstream” of the kitchen tap and learning more about where our water comes from.

The scale of the SWP is mind-boggling: More than two in three Californians rely on it for at least part of their drinking water. It is the largest publicly built and operated water project in the country, encompassing 17 pumping plants, more than 30 storage facilities, and over 660 miles of canals and pipelines. At the south end of the San Joaquin Valley at the Tehachapi Mountains, the huge Edmonston Pumping Plant raises the water 1,926 feet-the highest single lift in the world. (If you’re driving to Southern California, check it out on the right side of I-5 just before the Grapevine). Moving all that water around and hoisting it over mountains doesn’t come easy (water is heavy, after all): The SWP is the largest single user of electricity in the state.

The Banks plant is named for Harvey O. Banks, Director of Water Resources when voters approved funding for the SWP in 1960. The project was ostensibly conceived as a solution to the problem that most of California’s water is north of the Delta, while most of its people are to the south and west. Big agricultural interests in the southern San Joaquin Valley also benefited-hugely-from “surplus” water shipped south. (And lest we Northern Californians start feeling smug, keep in mind we receive a greater percentage of our total water supply from the Delta than does Southern California.)

The Banks plant draws water from the Delta through intake gates into Clifton Court Forebay. From there, the water is pulled up a channel to the Skinner Fish Facility, where delta smelt, Chinook salmon, and some 90 other species of fish are, theoretically, screened out so they won’t get sucked into the pumps (More on fish screening in my next post). But getting squashed in the pumps is not a fish’s only worry: The pumping actually alters the habitat by impacting salinity and flow, disrupting natural rhythms that serve as vital cues for migration and spawning. The old joke that in California water flows uphill toward power and money is not far off the mark: The pull of the pumps is so powerful it causes rivers to flow backwards-literally uphill.

Crashing fish populations, poor water quality, the vulnerability of Delta levees and our water supply to earthquakes or other disasters-all have added to the growing realization that we can’t keep quenching California’s thirst through big straws stuck in the Delta. Obviously the SWP is not going to stop pumping anytime soon. But we do need to find ways to reduce our reliance on the Delta-through conservation, water recycling, and increased regional self-sufficiency-and to restore the functioning of an ecosystem so devastated by our radical retooling of our waterways.

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Where Water Runs Uphill 23 April,2013Ann Dickinson

  • Interesting read. You mentioned that the pumping is actually altering the environment by changing the salinity levels and water flow. Have there been any environmental impact studies done in the last 40 years touching on this specifically? Ie., how it has impacted the migration and spawning?

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  • Stuart

    Matt, I doubt it. Maslows hierarchy kind of dictates that even if california is royally screwing the environment by using gigawatts of electricity to pump water to what is mostly a desert out of a delta to quench legions of enivromentalists thirsts, no one wants to hear about it. Clean water for people > fish.

  • Dan

    Nothing is native to the Delta. People and jobs are more important than fish. Turn the pumps back on and screw the fish.

  • Rogene Reynolds

    I do not understand a repost of a 2008 article. The writer has surely by now answered some of the questions brought to mind, if she has followed the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) planning process.
    Thanks for the opportunity to comment.
    Rogene Reynolds, South Delta

  • Edmonston Pumped Storage Hydro Scheme

    This is the first time I have calculated this so please do check my sums!

    Upper Reservoir – Assumptions
    Dam top – Surface elevation when full – 3214 feet = 980 metres
    Area – 10 km^2 = 10,000,000 m2
    Working depth 30 metres – dam top and full at 980 metres, flow restricted under 950 metres
    volume = 300,000,000 metres cubed
    = 3 x 10^8 m3
    = 3 x 10^11 litres
    Mass = 3 x 10^11 Kgs
    normal head – 1926 feet, 587 metres
    plus centre of mass 15 metres
    total head = 602 metres

    Energy stored = m g h
    = 3 x 10^11 Kgs x 9.81 x 602 m
    = 17720 x 10^11 Joules
    = 1772 x 10^12 Joules = 1772 TeraJoules TJ
    = 1.772 x 10^15 Joules = 1.772 PetaJoules PJ
    = 492 GWh
    = 492,000 MWh

    Full power 835 MW

    Fill upper reservoir in 492,000 / 835 = 589 hours = 24 days 13 hours
    Generation depends on flow rate, likely will need active pumping from upper reservoir to reach maximum flow rate and power generation.

    If the same flow rate generating as with pumping, with 75% efficiency expect generation of 626 MW

    If flow is increased, widening tunnels for efficiency, then power will increase in proportion to flow rate, assuming additional pumps and turbines are installed.

    Twice the flow = pumping at 1670 MW, generating at 1252 MW for 12 days 6 hours

    Four times the flow = pumping at 3,340 MW, generating at 2504 MW for 6 days 3 hours

    Eight times the flow = pumping at 6,680 MW, generating at 5010 MW for 3 days 1.5 hours.

    Doubling the working depth and volume of the scheme by raising the level of the dam (and the height of the surge tank) by another 30 metres to a dam top of 1010 metres will double time of pumping and generation without increasing pumping power or generation significantly.

    Scottish Scientist
    Independent Scientific Adviser for Scotland

    * Wind, storage and back-up system designer
    * Double Tidal Lagoon Baseload Scheme
    * Off-Shore Electricity from Wind, Solar and Hydrogen Power
    * World’s biggest-ever pumped-storage hydro-scheme, for Scotland?
    * Modelling of wind and pumped-storage power
    * Scotland Electricity Generation – my plan for 2020
    * South America – GREAT for Renewable Energy

  • My proposal for a Edmonston Pumped Storage Hydro Scheme is shown here.


    An intake tower with intake pump sited at Pastoria Siphon allows for a greater reservoir working depth and a working volume percentage of over 60%, with a reservoir fill time of 48 days at today’s full pumping rate, or 4 months 23 days at 1/3 of flow for filling, 2/3 of flow for water customers.
    Energy stored is at least 500 GWh.

    Here’s my sums if you want to check them.

    Upper Reservoir

    Area – 6.5 km^2 = 6,500,000 m2 = 1600 acres

    Estimated average elevation of upper reservoir bed (existing topography) – 900 metres,

    Elevation of water surface when full 980 metres

    Average depth of water = 980 – 900 = 80 metres

    Total volume of upper reservoir when full
    = 80m x 6,500,000 m^2 = 520,000,000 m^3 = 5.2 x 10^8 m^3

    Time to fill reservoir at total flow at design head: 4410 ft³/s – 124.9 m3/s
    5.2 x 10^8 m^3 / 124.9 m^3/s = 4.16 x 10^6 s = 69,388 minutes = 1,156 hours = 48.2 days, using 100% of normal flow

    Or using 1/3rd of normal flow, takes 44.5 x 3 days = 144.6 days or 4 months 23 days

    Working volume (depth 50m) as a percentage of total volume = 50/80 = 62.5%
    Stagnant volume (depth 30m) as a percentage of total volume = 30/80 = 37.5%

    Pistoria Siphon
    Lowest Elevation of 2840 feet = 865.6 metres

    Minimum pumping elevation 880 metres, (100 metres below full) average depth = 50 metres

    Working depth 50 metres, elevation of centre of mass 980 – 25 = 955 metres

    Working volume = 50m x 6,500,000 m2 = 325,000,000 metres cubed = 0.325 km3 = 263,000 acre-feet
    = 3.25 x 10^8 m3
    = 3.25 x 10^11 litres
    Mass = 3.25 x 10^11 Kgs

    Elevation of Edmonston Pumping Plant about 375 metres, pumping to elevation of 980 metres, pumping head required is 605 metres.

    Centre of mass at elevation 955 metres, so centre of mass potential energy height difference is = 955 – 375 = 580 metres

    Energy stored = m g h
    = 3.25 x 10^11 Kgs x 9.81 x 580 m
    = 18492 x 10^11 Joules
    = 1849 x 10^12 Joules = 1849 TeraJoules TJ
    = 1.849 x 10^15 Joules = 1.849 PetaJoules PJ
    = 513.6 GWh
    = 513,600 MWh

    Scottish Scientist
    Independent Scientific Adviser for Scotland

    * Wind, storage and back-up system designer
    * Double Tidal Lagoon Baseload Scheme
    * Off-Shore Electricity from Wind, Solar and Hydrogen Power
    * World’s biggest-ever pumped-storage hydro-scheme, for Scotland?
    * Modelling of wind and pumped-storage power
    * Scotland Electricity Generation – my plan for 2020
    * South America – GREAT for Renewable Energy


Ann Dickinson

Before moving to California almost five years ago, Ann served as Sally Brown Fellow in Environmental Literature at the University of Virginia, where she taught undergraduate seminars on literature and the environment and coordinated an ongoing reading series featuring nationally prominent nature writers. Prior to that, she spent a year as a research assistant at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute's field station on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, studying how young leaves defend themselves against herbivores.

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